30 years of the spreadsheet

The spreadsheet was the ‘killer app’ that helped popularise the personal computer - 30 years since its introduction we hail VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet.

As with most great events, the birth of the personal computer is somewhat hard to pin down. Was it the introduction of the Altair, the first kit computer introduced in 1975? Was it the moment Bill Gates managed to get IBM to agree to pay for a licence of his company’s operating system for every computer sold, or was it the first time IBM PC went on sale?

Whatever your opinion, there can be little doubt that a major milestone in the history of the PC in anyone’s book was the first application that got people to look at the personal computer as more than just a toy. This was VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet, co-created by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston in 1979.

In these early days, computers were dismissed as being good for nothing more than playing games, but once the business community took a look at what the program could do, the need for a computer in the office became clear.

Ironically, while people associate PCs with ‘boring’ stuff like spreadsheets - a fact much played upon by Apple in its PC vs. Mac advertising campaign - the first spreadsheet was actually coded on an Apple II.

The idea

Bricklin recalls that the idea for VisiCalc came to him as a student at Harvard Business School, where doing an MBA he began to daydream about an inactive accounts ledger. “Imagine if I had a heads-up display, like in a fighter plane, where I could see the virtual image hanging in the air in front of me. I could just move my mouse/keyboard calculator around on the table, punch in a few numbers, circle them to get a sum, do some calculations, and answer '10 per cent will be fine!'"

Of course, Bricklin was a little ahead of the curve with a virtual HUD and eventually settled for a standard computer screen, envisioning the rows and columns that became the staple for spreadsheets. He coded the first version of the app on an Apple II that he borrowed from Dan Fylstra, who later became the publisher of the completed VisiCalc.

The early name for the programme was actually ‘Calcu’edger’ – but that was dismissed for its associations with traditional bookkeeping and accounting. Despite VisiCalc now sounding somewhat dated, the name does the job of emphasising the visual nature of the program.

When building the prototype, Bricklin used his own code to solve a business problem for one of his classes at Harvard Business School. The case was an analysis of the famous ‘Pepsi-challenge’ advertising campaign which ironically was run by John Sculley, who would later leave Pepsi to become chief executive of Apple - where he infamously fired Steve Jobs.

How did you ever do without it?

Despite the programme not being finished and not announced, an advert for VisiCalc appeared in the May 1979 issue of Byte Magazine, an early enthusiast publication, with the bold tagline, “How did you ever do without it?”

Around the same time, the programme was shown for the first time to personal computer press at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, but the anniversary we’re hailing was its first showing to the public. This was at the National Computer Conference in New York City in June of 1979.